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May 13, 2024 Focus | Small Business

Municipal development staff shortages offer upstart Vernon planning consultancy growth opportunities

Contributed Tyche Planning & Policy Group has more than 30 municipal clients in Connecticut, which are marked on the company map, shown above.
Tyche Planning & Policy Group at a glance
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John Guszkowski and Michael D’Amato are, among other designations, certified planners.

Guszkowski has more than 20 years of planning experience, while D’Amato has more than 15.

But if you ask them about their three-year-old company, Tyche Planning & Policy Group in Vernon, they’ll say they never planned to have their own business.

Michael D’Amato

“To suggest that we had some business savvy that allowed us to laser in on this niche and that we could then create all this work, it was totally not that,” D’Amato said.

Instead, their company, which primarily serves as a planning and regulatory consultant for municipalities, was born from their preference to remain in a small, focused operation.

But that doesn’t mean they don’t have big clients. D’Amato, for example, was appointed in April to serve as zoning administrator for the city of Hartford, to help make up for the loss of Planning Director Erin Howard.

The cities of New Haven and Waterbury have also tapped Tyche’s services, which have been in demand amid a shortage of municipal planners and other officials responsible for moving new development projects through the local approval process.

John Guszkowski

Guszkowski, 50, and D’Amato, 34, previously worked for CME Associates, a Mansfield-based engineering firm that was acquired in January 2020 by CHA Consulting Inc., a larger full-service engineering consulting and construction management company.

“We went from a two-person planning team and a small firm to a two-person planning team and a very large firm,” D’Amato said. “From the beginning, it was very clear to us that the direction we were headed was very different from the direction the firm was headed. … So, we knew it wasn’t a good fit.”

He and Guszkowski considered their options and “being on our own was, like, Plan D,” D’Amato said. They nonetheless agreed it was the best opportunity, so they negotiated an exit that let them retain their municipal clients.

“They weren’t thrilled to let that revenue walk out the door,” Guszkowski said of CHA Consulting. ”But they also acknowledged that, out of a firm of 1,500 people, they had literally nobody else that could serve those clients. So, we came to an agreement.”

Tyche, like Nike

Since leaving CHA Consulting and forming Tyche on Jan. 11, 2021, the duo has increased their staff to six and now work with nearly 30 municipalities.

Guszkowski said it was a family member who suggested the company’s name, which refers to a Greek goddess and is pronounced like Nike.

“Tyche was responsible for the fate and fortune of cities,” he said. “We’re a community and urban planning firm. We thought it was appropriate. My kid was a Greek and Latin scholar in college and came up with the name.”

In addition to being a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners (AICP), Guszkowski is accredited by the Connecticut Association of Zoning Enforcement Officers, U.S. Green Building Council and Institute for Sustainable Infrastructure.

He serves as a consulting town planner for the towns of Chester, Clinton, Deep River, Essex and Hampton, has served as economic development coordinator for Hebron and Willington, and as a planner with the Capitol Region Council of Governments. He also has written planning documents and special studies for more than 20 cities and towns in the state.

D’Amato also is a member of AICP, and is certified as a Connecticut inland wetland agent and zoning enforcement officer. With Tyche, he serves as a consulting planner for towns that include Ashford, East Windsor and Tolland, and has assisted in drafting affordable housing plans, zoning and subdivision regulations, and plans of conservation and development updates.

Providing horsepower

D’Amato recently took on his new role in the city of Hartford as zoning administrator, giving him the authority to issue permits when project reviews occur, he said.

He’s replacing Howard, who resigned April 26 to accept a position as director of the East Coast regional team for Grow America, a national nonprofit development organization.

D’Amato will serve in the role until a permanent planning director is hired.

Before her departure, Howard told the Hartford Planning & Zoning Commission that appointing D’Amato was part of her efforts to “set everyone up for success” after she left.

She explained that 95% of the applications received by the Hartford city planning department require only a staff review. “Only 5 percent come before the commission,” she said, while adding that the staff “is young and has a strong need to have technical experience.”

Tyche has provided consulting services to Hartford for more than a year, primarily doing plan reviews because a number of city staff positions are vacant.

“There was no one on staff that really had that expertise and comfort level,” he said. “So, we stepped in because they had a lot of projects that were in the hopper and we were just providing that horsepower.”

Tyche also provides Hartford staff training and consults on regulations, he said.

Filled a niche

D’Amato and Guszkowski, who declined to disclose their annual revenues, said the services they offer depend on a municipality’s needs.

“Sometimes you’re doing a plan review for a development, sometimes you’re answering an angry neighbor’s complaint about someone’s shed being too close to their side yard line,” Guszkowski said. “And sometimes you’re coaching a new first selectman through the first couple of months in office when they have no idea what they’re doing. … We’re there to help the town and do the job.”

He added that Tyche filled this particular niche because of how difficult it is for communities to find skilled staff.

“The level of complexity of applications and stuff keeps getting ramped up,” he said, and “we are the supply for a number of small towns to meet that demand.”

As an example, he noted that he was hired by the town of Clinton to serve as its interim planner, “and it took them eight years to find a full-time person. So, interim can mean a lot of things.”

D’Amato said that while smaller communities often don’t need a certified professional planner for 40 hours a week, there are times that level of experience is necessary.

“When a developer shows up and says, ‘I need to build a 2 million-square-foot warehouse in your town,’ you still need that level of expertise for that small period of time,” he said. “So, just because the volume is different doesn’t mean the expertise required for all the volume they do have is lower.”

Tyche does have some private industry clients, but working with so many different communities means the company has to be careful to avoid any conflicts of interest, D’Amato said.

“We don’t necessarily have an ambition to become this big, lumbering organization with a huge staff,” D’Amato added. “If we became this group of 50 people that were covering all these contracts all over the state, we would become something that I think we’re both happy to not be.”

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